Monday, November 9, 2015

A year of spy flicks reviewed: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.


I'll be honest, going into this my interest in this film was purely mercenary. Beyond the fact that it is one of the  spy action flicks coming out this year,  it was also one of the 975 films Alicia Vikander is in this year so I had to watch it. I first saw her in A Royal Affair a couple years back, and I've been a fan ever since. This year's Ex Machina only solidified my appreciation for her talents. I had seen the trailers to this movie and, frankly, they left me a little cold.  I have never seen the original TV show so I have no investment in this concept or these characters. Compounding these factors, Guy Ritchie's last directorial effort, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Something or other was so over-stylised it left me with a splitting headache. However, since Alicia the Great was in it, I took that as a sign of quality.

Let's get to the stuff I liked. There's some sweet 60s production design, everyone is dressed to the nines and the whole affair is buoyed considerably by a fabulously retro soundtrack from Daniel Pemberton. The first 10 minutes, in which we are introduced to our heroes, is fantastic. It sets up the differences between our odd couple heroes with a winning combination of economy and charm that stands in mark contrast to the protracted origin tales we so often have to endure nowadays. It is the best sequence in the film. And that's a problem.

After this cracking opening, the movie settles into a middle ground between banal hokum and frothy caper. The plot is the usual 'loose nukes' bit we've seen a million times, the villains do not get enough to do and the set pieces lack the mix of thrilling originality and peril that M:I 5 manages so well. The movie is at its best when diverging from the plot -- the best example being Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) taking a break to enjoy an impromptu snack while a life-and-death boat chase takes place offscreen.

There are a few moments where Ritchie loses control of the tone. There is a torture scene involving a former concentration camp sadist which feels out of place. And the final action sequence, involving rain, blood and Alicia Vikander screaming helplessly, feels like something out of a darker thriller.

The acting by all is fine, but what this movie ultimately lacks is chemistry. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer just do not gel together as a team. Of the pair, Hammer gets the more interesting role as Soviet powerhouse Illya Kuryakin. He brings a bull-in-a-china-shop physicality to the role which makes for some great physical humour, and a contrast to the more suave, sophisticated Solo. As for Cavill, I have never understood his appeal -- he always comes off as a good-looking mannequin. While I can see why he was up for the role of Bond, I can see why he didn't get it. There's something missing from his portrayal of Solo, a certain charisma that never comes through. The character is meant to be a professional con man and man of the world, and yet Cavill comes across as a little too young and clean-cut to fully convince.

The supporting players are fine. Vikander does not embarrass herself, even though she does not get much to do. Jared Harris turns up as Solo's boss, Elizabeth Debicki brings an icy relish to her underwritten villainess and Hugh Grant maximises his little screen time, giving a masterclass in old school charm that makes you almost wish he was playing Solo instead of the Man of Steel.

Ultimately, the movie's problem is that it feels too small-scale, like an extended pilot for a TV show. It's a pleasant diversion, but it is not that memorable. While it's not a bad movie, I feel like this concept and characters would probably benefit from a return to the small screen.

Current ranking

1. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
2. Spy 
3. Kingsman: The Secret Service
4. The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

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